10 things to know about the new school year

Parents, the countdown is over. Today is the official first day of school for 1.5 million Michigan students. The kids are going to be out of the house. For hours.

Now, it's time to focus on what's ahead. It's going to be a longer school year for many. It's going to be a fresh start for students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. And the ax may come down on some of the chronically worst-performing schools in the state.

►Related:In Detroit, schools and teachers reach pact

Here are 10 things you need to know as the 2016-17 school year kicks off:

1) Longer school year

Maybe the holiday break around Christmas will be shorter. Maybe that mid-winter break in February will be gone. Maybe the school year will be extending even more into June. Whatever the case, many of you will find the school year is going to be longer. How much longer? As many as five days.

You can thank some changing state rules for that. Starting this school year, state law requires 180 days of instruction, up from 175 previously required. Districts set their own calendars and days of instruction, but must abide by the state rules.

The Madison District Public Schools was at 176 days last school year. Superintendent Randy Speck said the district expanded the number of days by shortening the December holiday vacation.

The state has been increasing the number of required days of instruction since a 2009 report showed that in some districts, kids were getting 160 or fewer days of instruction. The average was 171.

►Related:Is your school among the worst-performing in Michigan?

►Related:One-third of failing schools in Michigan are in DPS

2) Closing failing schools

If your kids attend a low-performing school, beware: The state School Reform Office is talking tough  about possibly closing chronically failing schools that are showing no improvement.

Which schools might get the ax? We'll have some idea later this fall, when an updated list of the worst-performing schools in 2016 is released (A 2015 list was released last week). But we won't know for sure until near the end of the calendar year, when the reform office is expected to make a decision.

There currently are a little more than 200 schools that are under state scrutiny because they fall in that bottom 5%.

3) The end of the road for the EAA

It was embattled from the very beginning and things never improved. The Education Achievement Authority, a state reform district that includes some of the worst-performing schools in Detroit, is expected to be dissolved after this school year.

How? The legislation that addressed the massive debt for the Detroit Public Schools Community District also included language that required the district to withdraw from an agreement that created the EAA after June 30, 2017. Eastern Michigan University, which was the other entity that helped create the EAA, pulled out in February, but it isn't effective until June 30, 2017.

The EAA began operating in 2012 and has been beseiged by academic, enrollment and spending woes from the start.

What becomes of the 14 schools that are part of the EAA — 11 directly run by the EAA and three run by a charter school management company — remains to be seen.

4) A new start for Detroit's school district

If any three words could define the new year for the new Detroit Public Schools Community District, it is these: "A fresh start."

Those are the words that Alycia Meriweather, the interim superintendent of the district, used to describe the new year during a news conference last week.

That fresh start comes courtesy of legislation that wiped out the debt that has crippled the district and led to the creation of a new district — with big plans to improve academic achievement at a time when test scores show too few kids in the district are proficient in anything.

Expect a big battle come the Nov. 8 election. Sixty-four people are running for seven seats on the board of education for the new district.

5) Fewer broke districts

Maybe it's the legislation that requires the state to intervene with districts teetering toward financial disaster. Or the law that allows some broke districts to be dissolved. Or maybe it's the strong work of school business leaders. Whatever the reason, we can expect to see fewer school districts operating in a deficit this year.

We won't know for sure until December, after audits are complete and the state releases its quarterly report on districts with deficits. But the March and June reports provided this bright piece of information: Of the 40 districts that ended the 2014-15 school year with a deficit, 18 expected to be out of deficit by the end of the 2015-16 school year.

►Related:Michigan students will be learning about genocide

6) Genocide education

Starting this school year, it will be mandatory for schools to add lessons about genocide to the social studies curriculum for grades 8-12, particularly teachings about the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide.

The mandate is part of bipartisan legislation that received near unanimous support when the Michigan Legislature approved it in May. Gov. Rick Snyder signed it into law in June. Eleven other states already require instruction in genocide, according to the Genocide Education Project.

7) Grades K-2 testing

If you have a child in first or second grade, new rules kick in requiring testing in early literacy and math — both in the fall and the spring.

In addition, the state will be administering a kindergarten exam for the first time, but it will be optional.

For the testing in grades 1-2,  schools can either use the state assessment or choose a different test, provided it meets state guidelines. Testing twice a year will allow schools to better measure growth from the beginning to the end of the school year.

Parents, speaking of tests: If you haven't already received it, you will soon receive a report showing how your child in grades 3-8 and 11 performed on the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress.

It's a complicated report, with terms like "claims" and "scale scores" to understand. But it will have vital information you will  need to understand what your child's score means.

The MDE has produced a video that walks parents through how to read the report. To watch it, go to www.youtube.com and search for "M-STEP/MME parent report."

8) More seasoned teachers

Expect to see more experienced teachers leading classes or working with children in schools, thanks to legislation that passed last year allowing retired teachers to return to work on a limited basis without risking their pensions.

The new rules target subject areas where there are critical shortages, such as special education and career and technical education programs.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District has targeted some of its recruitment efforts at retired teachers, as it seeks to fill vacancies.

9) Plans to cut back on expulsions/suspensions

If you think Michigan schools are expelling and suspending too many kids, there's good news: The state is going to get a little tough in an effort to reduce the numbers. This school year, district officials likely will be working on plans to cut back on the numbers, in preparation for the 2017-18 school year, in which they'll lose some state funding if they don't have a plan in place.

State data show there were 1,347 expulsions during the 2014-15 school year — about 8% of them permanent. In 45% of cases, the expulsion was for almost a full school year — 180 days. The median number of days expelled: 157.

Meanwhile, a package of bills making its way through the Legislature would require schools to consider factors such as a student's age, disciplinary history and seriousness of the violation before suspending or expelling a student for truancy, chronic absenteeism or any of the other reasons schools can expel or suspend students. The legislation passed the House in June and is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

10) There's no shortage of things to debate about in Michigan schools.

But here are three things we should see some healthy discussion on during this school year:

 

  • The MDE and state Board of Education last year launched a plan to turn Michigan into a top 10 performing state — an ambitious goal given Michigan's scores on a rigorous national exam have been sliding backward. Results of the state's tough M-STEP exam released last week illustrate why this work is important: In most subjects and grades, fewer than 50% of the students were proficient in English language arts, math, science and social studies. Expect the discussion to turn more from big, broad talk about goals to more specific ways to achieve those goals.

  • A report, commissioned by the state and released earlier this summer, said Michigan needs to address its increasingly unequal school funding system, and spend more to educate children who are at risk or speak little or no English. State Superintendent Brian Whiston has called on state officials to address the concerns raised in the report.

  • The MDE has revised its controversial proposed policy on addressing the needs of students who are lesbian, gay, transgender or questioning their identity (LGBTQ). The policy was introduced in May, but immediately faced backlash. The board is to vote on the revised policy Sept. 14. But the debate likely won't end there. Two of the board's eight seats are up for election in November.

Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651 or lhiggins@freepress.com 


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